Notes from Limmud 2008
Literacy in the Time of the Prophets
[Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speaker, not myself. Accuracy of transcription is not guaranteed.]
The prophets give us a role on the ancient Middle East, because they are communicator between G-d and Israel: we can see which images they would choose to engage with the audience.
Different scholars will take the same archaeological evidence, and come to completely different opinions about whether literacy was widespread, or limited to kings, prophets and scribes. In fact, you can come to any conclusion you want, and no one can prove you wrong!
In Jeremiah there's a recurrent motif of Israel as a woman in labour giving birth to nothing. Israel is symbolised as the weaker sex, at a time of vulnerability, going through a lot of pain, but giving birth to nothing.
In addition, some of the prophets will use props as a physical representation of their prophecy; so Ezekiel builds a model of Jerusalem and destroys it; or takes bricks and writes the name of Jerusalem on them, and then throws them in a river.
The prophets use props such as scrolls, or tablets with writing on them. If literacy was not widespread beyond the upper classes, why use these images of writing? Why would that be effective to the audience? And if they are literate, how would that be effective.
Jeremiah is the most introspective of the prophets; he spends a lot of time angsting about how hard it is to be intercessor between G-d and Israel. He prophesied for forty years, like Moses did.
Jeremiah 36:1–32 ירמיהו לו א-לב
It came to pass in the fourth year of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah king of Judah, that this word came unto Jeremiah from the LORD, saying, Take a roll of a book, and write in it all the words that I have spoken unto you against Israel, and against Judah, and against all the nations, from the day I spoke to thee, from the days of Josiah, even unto this day. It may be that the house of Judah will hear all the evil which I purpose to do unto them; that they may return every man from his evil way; that I may forgive their iniquity and their sin. Then Jeremiah called Baruch the son of Neriah: and Baruch wrote from the mouth of Jeremiah all the words of the LORD, which he had spoken unto him, upon a roll of a book.
Jeremiah commanded Baruch, saying, I am in hiding; I cannot go into the house of the LORD: Therefore go and read in the roll you wrote at my dictation, the LORD's words in the ears of the people in the LORD's house on the fast day: and also you shall read them in the ears of all Judah that come out of their cities. It may be they will present their supplication before the LORD, and will return every one from his evil way: for great is the anger and the fury that the LORD hath pronounced against this people.
Baruch the son of Neriah did according to all that Jeremiah the prophet commanded him, reading in the book the words of the LORD in the LORD's house. It came to pass in the fifth year of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah king of Judah, in the ninth month, that they proclaimed a fast before the LORD to all the people in Jerusalem, and to all the people that came from the cities of Judah unto Jerusalem. It was then that Baruch read in the book the words of Jeremiah in the house of the LORD, in the chamber of Gemariah ben Shaphan the scribe, in the higher court, at the entry of the new gate of the LORD's house, in the ears of all the people.
When Michaiah the son of Gemariah, the son of Shaphan, had heard out of the book all the words of the LORD, Then he went down into the king's house, into the scribe's chamber: and found all the officials in session: Elishama the scribe, Delaiah ben Shemaiah, Elnathan ben Achbor, Gemariah ben Shaphan, and Zedekiah ben Hananiah, and all the officials. Then Michaiah declared unto them all the words that he had heard, when Baruch read the book in the ears of the people. Therefore all the officials sent Yehudi ben Nethaniah ben Shelemiah ben Cushi, to Baruch, saying, Take in thine hand the roll which you read in the ears of the people, and come. So Baruch the son of Neriah took the roll in his hand, and came unto them. They said unto him, Sit down now, and read it in our ears. So Baruch read it in their ears. Now it came to pass, when they had heard all the words, they were afraid both one and other, and said unto Baruch, We must report all this to the king. They asked Baruch, saying, Tell us now, How didst thou write all these words at his mouth? Then Baruch answered them, He pronounced all these words unto me with his mouth, and I wrote them with ink in the book.
The officials said unto Baruch, Go into hiding, you and Jeremiah; and let no man know where you are. And they went in to the king into the court, after leaving the roll in the chamber of Elishama the scribe, and told all the words in the ears of the king. So the king sent Yehudi to fetch the roll: and he took it out of Elishama the scribe's chamber. And Yehudi read it in the ears of the king, and in the ears of all the princes which stood beside the king. Now the king sat in the winterhouse in the ninth month: and there was a fire on the hearth burning before him. And it came to pass, that when Yehudi had read three or four columns, he cut it with a scribe's knife, and cast it into the fire that was on the hearth, until all the roll was consumed in the fire that was on the hearth. Yet they were not afraid, nor rent their garments, neither the king, nor any of his servants that heard all these words. Nevertheless Elnathan and Delaiah and Gemariah had made intercession to the king that he would not burn the roll: but he would not hear them. But the king commanded Jerahmeel the son of Hammelech, and Seraiah the son of Azriel, and Shelemiah the son of Abdeel, to take Baruch the scribe and Jeremiah the prophet: but the LORD hid them.
Then the word of the LORD came to Jeremiah, after the king had burned the roll, and the words which Baruch wrote at Jeremiah's dictation, saying, Get yourself another roll, and write in it all the words that were in the first roll, which Jehoiakim the king of Judah hath burned. Say to Jehoiakim king of Judah, Thus saith the LORD; You burnt this roll, saying, Why hast thou written therein, saying, The king of Babylon shall certainly come and destroy this land, and shall cause to cease from thence man and beast?
Therefore thus saith the LORD of Jehoiakim king of Judah; He shall have none to sit upon the throne of David: and his corpse shall be cast out in the day to the heat, and in the night to the frost. And I will punish him and his seed and his servants for their iniquity; and I will bring upon them, and upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and upon the men of Judah, all the disasters of which I have warned them; but they would not heed him.
Then Jeremiah took another roll, and gave it to Baruch the scribe, the son of Neriah; who wrote therein from the mouth of Jeremiah all the words of the book which Jehoiakim king of Judah had burned in the fire: and there were added besides unto them many like words.
וַיְהִי בַּשָּׁנָה הָרְבִעִית לִיהוֹיָקִים בֶּן־יֹאשִׁיָּהוּ מֶלֶךְ יְהוּדָה הָיָה הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה אֶל־יִרְמְיָהוּ מֵאֵת יְהוָה לֵאמֹר׃ קַח־לְךָ מְגִלַּת־סֵפֶר וְכָתַבְתָּ אֵלֶיהָ אֵת כָּל־הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר־דִּבַּרְתִּי אֵלֶיךָ עַל־יִשְׂרָאֵל וְעַל־יְהוּדָה וְעַל־כָּל־הַגּוֹיִם מִיּוֹם דִּבַּרְתִּי אֵלֶיךָ מִימֵי יֹאשִׁיָּהוּ וְעַד הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה׃ אוּלַי יִשְׁמְעוּ בֵּית יְהוּדָה אֵת כָּל־הָרָעָה אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי חֹשֵׁב לַעֲשׂוֹת לָהֶם לְמַעַן יָשׁוּבוּ אִישׁ מִדַּרְכּוֹ הָרָעָה וְסָלַחְתִּי לַעֲו&zwj ֹנָם וּלְחַטָּאתָם׃וַיִּקְרָא יִרְמְיָהוּ אֶת־בָּרוּךְ בֶּן־נֵרִיָּה וַיִּכְתֹּב בָּרוּךְ מִפִּי יִרְמְיָהוּ אֵת כָּל־דִּבְרֵי יְהוָה אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּר אֵלָיו עַל־מְגִלַּת־סֵפֶר׃ וַיְצַוֶּה יִרְמְיָהוּ אֶת־בָּרוּךְ לֵאמֹר אֲנִי עָצוּר לֹא אוּכַל לָבוֹא בֵּית יְהוָה׃ וּבָאתָ אַתָּה וְקָרָאתָ בַמְּגִלָּה אֲשֶׁר־כָּתַבְתָּ־מִפִּי אֶת־דִּבְרֵי יְהוָה בְּאָזְנֵי הָעָם בֵּית יְהוָה בְּיוֹם צוֹם וְגַם בְּאָזְנֵי כָל־יְהוּדָה הַבָּאִים מֵעָרֵיהֶם תִּקְרָאֵם׃ אוּלַי תִּפֹּל תְּחִנָּתָם לִפְנֵי יְהוָה וְיָשֻׁבוּ אִישׁ מִדַּרְכּוֹ הָרָעָה כִּי־גָדוֹל הָאַף וְהַחֵמָה אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּר יְהוָה אֶל־הָעָם הַזֶּה׃
וַיַּעַשׂ בָּרוּךְ בֶּן־נֵרִיָּה כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר־צִוָּהוּ יִרְמְיָהוּ הַנָּבִיא לִקְרֹא בַסֵּפֶר דִּבְרֵי יְהוָה בֵּית יְהוָה׃ וַיְהִי בַשָּׁנָה הַחֲמִשִׁית לִיהוֹיָקִים בֶּן־יֹאשִׁיָּהוּ מֶלֶךְ־יְהוּדָה בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַתְּשִׁעִי קָרְאוּ צוֹם לִפְנֵי יְהוָה כָּל־הָעָם בִּירוּשָׁלִָם וְכָל־הָעָם הַבָּאִים מֵעָרֵי יְהוּדָה בִּירוּשָׁלִָם׃ וַיִּקְרָא בָרוּךְ בַּסֵּפֶר אֶת־דִּבְרֵי יִרְמְיָהוּ בֵּית יְהוָה בְּלִשְׁכַּת גְּמַרְיָהוּ בֶן־שָׁפָן הַסֹּפֵר בֶּחָצֵר הָעֶלְיוֹן פֶּתַח שַׁעַר בֵּית־יְהוָה הֶחָדָשׁ בְּאָזְנֵי כָּל־הָעָם׃ וַיִּשְׁמַע מִכָיְהוּ בֶן־גְּמַרְיָהוּ בֶן־שָׁפָן אֶת־כָּל־דִּבְרֵי יְהוָה מֵעַל הַסֵּפֶר׃ וַיֵּרֶד בֵּית־הַמֶּלֶךְ עַל־לִשְׁכַּת הַסֹּפֵר וְהִנֵּה־שָׁם כָּל־הַשָּׂרִים יוֹשְׁבִים אֱלִישָׁמָע הַסֹּפֵר וּדְלָיָהוּ בֶן־שְׁמַעְיָהוּ וְאֶלְנָתָן בֶּן־עַכְבּוֹר וּגְמַרְיָהוּ בֶן־שָׁפָן וְצִדְקִיָּהוּ בֶן־חֲנַנְיָהוּ וְכָל־הַשָּׂרִים׃ וַיַּגֵּד לָהֶם מִכָיְהוּ אֵת כָּל־הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר שָׁמֵעַ בִּקְרֹא בָרוּךְ בַּסֵּפֶר בְּאָזְנֵי הָעָם׃ וַיִּשְׁלְחוּ כָל־הַשָּׂרִים אֶל־בָּרוּךְ אֶת־יְהוּדִי בֶּן־נְתַנְיָהוּ בֶּן־שֶׁלֶמְיָהוּ בֶן־כּוּשִׁי לֵאמֹר הַמְּגִלָּה אֲשֶׁר קָרָאתָ בָּהּ בְּאָזְנֵי הָעָם קָחֶנָּה בְיָדְךָ וָלֵךְ וַיִּקַּח בָּרוּךְ בֶּן־נֵרִיָּהוּ אֶת־הַמְּגִלָּה בְּיָדוֹ וַיָּבֹא אֲלֵיהֶם׃ וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלָיו שֵׁב נָא וּקְרָאֶנָּה בְּאָזְנֵינוּ וַיִּקְרָא בָרוּךְ בְּאָזְנֵיהֶם׃ וַיְהִי כְּשָׁמְעָם אֶת־כָּל־הַדְּבָרִים פָּחֲדוּ אִישׁ אֶל־רֵעֵהוּ וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֶל־בָּרוּךְ הַגֵּיד נַגִּיד לַמֶּלֶךְ אֵת כָּל־הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה׃ וְאֶת־בָּרוּךְ שָׁאֲלוּ לֵאמֹר הַגֶּד־נָא לָנוּ אֵיךְ כָּתַבְתָּ אֶת־כָּל־הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה מִפִּיו׃ וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם בָּרוּךְ מִפִּיו יִקְרָא אֵלַי אֵת כָּל־הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה וַאֲנִי כֹּתֵב עַל־הַסֵּפֶר בַּדְּיוֹ׃
וַיֹּאמְרוּ הַשָּׂרִים אֶל־בָּרוּךְ לֵךְ הִסָּתֵר אַתָּה וְיִרְמְיָהוּ וְאִישׁ אַל־יֵדַע אֵיפֹה אַתֶּם׃ וַיָּבֹאוּ אֶל־הַמֶּלֶךְ חָצֵרָה וְאֶת־הַמְּגִלָּה הִפְקִדוּ בְּלִשְׁכַּת אֱלִישָׁמָע הַסֹּפֵר וַיַּגִּידוּ בְּאָזְנֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ אֵת כָּל־הַדְּבָרִים׃ וַיִּשְׁלַח הַמֶּלֶךְ אֶת־יְהוּדִי לָקַחַת אֶת־הַמְּגִלָּה וַיִּקָּחֶהָ מִלִּשְׁכַּת אֱלִישָׁמָע הַסֹּפֵר וַיִּקְרָאֶהָ יְהוּדִי בְּאָזְנֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ וּבְאָזְנֵי כָּל־הַשָּׂרִים הָעֹמְדִים מֵעַל הַמֶּלֶךְ׃ וְהַמֶּלֶךְ יוֹשֵׁב בֵּית הַחֹרֶף בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַתְּשִׁיעִי וְאֶת־הָאָח לְפָנָיו מְבֹעָרֶת׃ וַיְהִי כִּקְרוֹא יְהוּדִי שָׁלֹשׁ דְּלָתוֹת וְאַרְבָּעָה יִקְרָעֶהָ בְּתַעַר הַסֹּפֵר וְהַשְׁלֵךְ אֶל־הָאֵשׁ אֲשֶׁר אֶל־הָאָח עַד־תֹּם כָּל־הַמְּגִלָּה עַל־הָאֵשׁ אֲשֶׁר עַל־הָאָח׃ וְלֹא פָחֲדוּ וְלֹא קָרְעוּ אֶת־בִּגְדֵיהֶם הַמֶּלֶךְ וְכָל־עֲבָדָיו הַשֹּׁמְעִים אֵת כָּל־הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה׃ וְגַם אֶלְנָתָן וּדְלָיָהוּ וּגְמַרְיָהוּ הִפְגִּעוּ בַמֶּלֶךְ לְבִלְתִּי שְׂרֹף אֶת־הַמְּגִלָּה וְלֹא שָׁמַע אֲלֵיהֶם׃ וַיְצַוֶּה הַמֶּלֶךְ אֶת־יְרַחְמְאֵל בֶּן־הַמֶּלֶךְ וְאֶת־שְׂרָיָהוּ בֶן־עַזְרִיאֵל וְאֶת־שֶׁלֶמְיָהוּ בֶּן־עַבְדְּאֵל לָקַחַת אֶת־בָּרוּךְ הַסֹּפֵר וְאֵת יִרְמְיָהוּ הַנָּבִיא וַיַּסְתִּרֵם יְהוָה׃
וַיְהִי דְבַר־יְהוָה אֶל־יִרְמְיָהוּ אַחֲרֵי שְׂרֹף הַמֶּלֶךְ אֶת־הַמְּגִלָּה וְאֶת־הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר כָּתַב בָּרוּךְ מִפִּי יִרְמְיָהוּ לֵאמֹר׃ שׁוּב קַח־לְךָ מְגִלָּה אַחֶרֶת וּכְתֹב עָלֶיהָ אֵת כָּל־הַדְּבָרִים הָרִאשֹׁנִים אֲשֶׁר הָיוּ עַל־הַמְּגִלָּה הָרִאשֹׁנָה אֲשֶׁר שָׂרַף יְהוֹיָקִים מֶלֶךְ־יְהוּדָה׃ וְעַל־יְהוֹיָקִים מֶלֶךְ־יְהוּדָה תֹאמַר כֹּה אָמַר יְהוָה אַתָּה שָׂרַפְתָּ אֶת־הַמְּגִלָּה הַזֹּאת לֵאמֹר מַדּוּעַ כָּתַבְתָּ עָלֶיהָ לֵאמֹר בֹּא־יָבוֹא מֶלֶךְ־בָּבֶל וְהִשְׁחִית אֶת־הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת וְהִשְׁבִּית מִמֶּנָּה אָדָם וּבְהֵמָה׃
לָכֵן כֹּה־אָמַר יְהוָה עַל־יְהוֹיָקִים מֶלֶךְ יְהוּדָה לֹא־יִהְיֶה־לּוֹ יוֹשֵׁב עַל־כִּסֵּא דָוִד וְנִבְלָתוֹ תִּהְיֶה מֻשְׁלֶכֶת לַחֹרֶב בַּיּוֹם וְלַקֶּרַח בַּלָּיְלָה׃ וּפָקַדְתִּי עָלָיו וְעַל־זַרְעוֹ וְעַל־עֲבָדָיו אֶת־עֲו&zwj ֹנָם וְהֵבֵאתִי עֲלֵיהֶם וְעַל־יֹשְׁבֵי יְרוּשָׁלִַם וְאֶל־אִישׁ יְהוּדָה אֵת כָּל־הָרָעָה אֲשֶׁר־דִּבַּרְתִּי אֲלֵיהֶם וְלֹא שָׁמֵעוּ׃
וְיִרְמְיָהוּ לָקַח מְגִלָּה אַחֶרֶת וַיִּתְּנָהּ אֶל־בָּרוּךְ בֶּן־נֵרִיָּהוּ הַסֹּפֵר וַיִּכְתֹּב עָלֶיהָ מִפִּי יִרְמְיָהוּ אֵת כָּל־דִּבְרֵי הַסֵּפֶר אֲשֶׁר שָׂרַף יְהוֹיָקִים מֶלֶךְ־יְהוּדָה בָּאֵשׁ וְעוֹד נוֹסַף עֲלֵיהֶם דְּבָרִים רַבִּים כָּהֵמָּה׃
This chapter is really important for traditional commentators, because other than this there is no text describing how prophecy was transferred from oral to written form.
So, is Jeremiah literate? It's not at all clear. If he were literate, why would he need a scribe? G-d tells Jeremiah to write the word of G-d, but he immediately hires a secretary. Maybe all prophets had scribes. Some of the commentators say Baruch was a royal scribe, belonging to the scribal family; but Baruch defected to Jeremiah.
Scribes should be literate, but they are asking other people to read the prophecy to them. Maybe this is an excuse to talk to Baruch so they can tell him to go into hiding...?
This chapter talks about hearing being "in our ears", and writing being "from the mouth of". It's different being read something from reading it yourself. Prophecies are not to simply be read.
Prophecy has as much to do with the written words as how it is spoken orally. Jeremiah had Baruch write these words down only because Jeremiah was in hiding. The person who reads it to the next group was present at the previous reading, so not only are they familiar with the text, but they know how it was read: what the intonations were.
Now, consider how the king reacts: he cuts up the document, bit by bit, and burning it. This brings to mind the forthcoming destruction of the Temple. In burning the scroll, the king cements what will happen to his kingdom.
When King Josiah finds the scroll in the Temple, he tears his clothes; here it specifically says they did not tear their clothes.
What's going on in the last verse? Baruch takes down Jeremiah's words, but then adds extra stuff at the end. (Though it's in the passive, so the extra material could be Jeremiah's as well.) The traditional commentators say it's the adding of the material to turn Jeremiah's prophecies into the Book of Jeremiah.
All prophecy is delivered orally. Who is the intended audience of this chapter of prophecy? The people, to let them know how bad the king is, and they are going to suffer punishment because of what he did.
The Siloam Inscription
The Siloam inscription, dating from the late eighth century, was written in the tunnel dug for King Hezekiah (on which see the report from when I went in it):
 the tunnel [ ] and this is the story of the tunnel while [ ]
the axes were against each other and while three cubits were left to cut? [ ] the voice of a man [ ]
called to his counterpart, [for] there was ZADA in the rock, on the right [ ] and on the day of the
tunnel (being finished) the stonecutters struck each man towards his counterpart, ax against ax and flowed
water from the source to the pool for 1200 cubits. and 100?
cubits was the height over the head of the stonecutters [ ]
[...] הנקבה. וזה. היה. דבר. הנקבה. בעוד. [מנפם. החצבים. את]
הגרזן. אש. אל. רעו. ובעוד. שלש. אמת. להנק[ב. נשמ]ע. קל. אש. ק
רא. אל רעו. כי. הית. זדה. בצר. מימן. ומ[שמ]אל. ובים. ה
נקבה. הכו. החצבם. אש. לקרת. רעו. גרזן. על. [ג]רזן. וילכו[.]
המים. מן. המוצא. אל. הברכה. במאתים. ואלף אמה. ומא
ת. אמה. היה. גבה. הצר. על. ראש. החצב[ם
Who was the author of this, higher class or lower class? And who was the intended audience? And what does this say about literacy at the time?
Was the plaque written by a workman in the tunnel? Or was it an official? And what about the inscription? It was in the middle of the tunnel, which people normally did not go into. (The tunnel brought water to the city, rather than providing access to a well.)
The Siloam Tomb inscription
This is [the sepulchre of ...]yahu, who is over the house. There is no silver and no gold here, but [his bones] and the bones of his slave-wife with him. Cursed be the man who will open this.
The assumption here is that grave-robbers, who are not likely to be upper class, would be able to read. This supports the assumption of widespread literacy. (Though possibly grave-robbers would go and find someone to read it for them?)
When we have inscriptions with names on, do they reflect the names of the scribes, or of the authors of their content?
The Letter of the Literate Soldier
Lachish Letter 3, about 588 BCE, a.k.a. the Letter of the Literate Soldier.
It appears this soldier's superior said the soldier couldn't read. The solider got very angry and wrote this flowery letter to prove he could.
Your servant Hoshayahu sent to inform my lord Yaush: May Y*hw*h cause my lord to hear a report of peace and a report of good things.
And now, please explain to your servant the meaning of the letter which you sent to your servant yesterday evening, because the heart of your servant has been sick since your sending to your servant and because my lord said, "you do not know (how) to read a letter." As Y*hw*h lives, never has any man had to read a letter to me. And also every letter that comes to me, surely I read it and, moreover, I can repeat it completely!*
And concerning your servant, it was reported saying, "The commander of the army, Konyahu ben-Elnathan, came down to enter into Egypt. And he sent to take Hodavyahu ben-Ahiyahu and his men from this place." And as for the letter of Tobyahu, servant of the king, which came to Shallum ben-Yada through the prophet saying, "Beware!", your servant sent it to my lord.
עבדך הושעיהו שלח ל
[ה]ג[ד] ל[אד]ני יאו[ש] ישמע
יהו[ה את] אדני שמעת שלם
ו[עת] שלח עבדך ס[פ]ר אל הפקח
[ו]ב[ת]בה רזם עבדך לספר אשר
שלח אדני לעבדך אמש כי לב
[ע]בד[ך] דוה מאז שלחך אל עבד
ך וכי אמר אדני לא ידעתה
קרא ספר חיהוה אם נסה א
יש לקרא לי ספר לנצח וגם
כל ספר אשר יבא אלי אם
קראתי אתה [אף] ראת פנהו
[כ]ל מאומ[ה] ולעבדך הגד
לאמר ירד שר הצבא
[יכבר]יהו בן אלנתן לבא
מצרימה ואת (continued on the other side)
הודויהו בן אחיהו ו
אנשו שלח לקחת מזה
וספר [נדב]יהו עבד המלך הבא
אל שלם בן ידע מאת הנבא לאם
ר השמר שלחה עבדך אל אדני
[* His spelling leaves a little to be desired, though (even allowing for period usage). ;^b (But, to be fair to him, only a little.)]
[The English came from Shira's handout, and differs from the Hebrew, which I found on the web, in filling in the missing letters.]